“There is very little comfort being an outsider in both worlds.”
Writer-director-actor Desiree Akhavan did not want her new Channel 4 series, in which she plays the lead role opposite Maxine Peake, to be called The Bisexual. Nor, when she burst on to the scene with cult hit film Appropriate Behaviour was she delighted to be introduced with references to her sexuality at every turn. Yet the latter led, she says, quite directly to the former.
“I have been living with this since 2014. The minute I premiered my first film I found myself always being introduced as ‘the bisexual film maker’ or ‘the bisexual New Yorker’ or ‘the bisexual Lena Dunham’. And for some reason, it made me feel very uncomfortable,” says Akhavan, when we meet at Channel 4 HQ in London. “So I wanted to know why.
“I am bisexual. People should label me that way. It is how I identify. But it felt tacky. If someone says ‘lesbian filmmaker’, I’m like, ‘fuck, yeah, lesbian filmmaker!’ But ‘bisexual filmmaker’ was humiliating to me, for some reason.”
My work is a lot about identity and about ownership of your identity and culture
So it was that Akhavan, whose latest film The Miseducation of Cameron Post is attracting low-key Oscar buzz, began teasing out her feelings towards bisexual identities. The series she has produced is a sharp, raw, funny and provocative look at identity, sexuality and community in the neighbourhood of East London that Akhavan has called home since (accidentally) moving from New York in 2015.
The dialogue and chat feels real. Its depiction of a London nightbus is possibly the finest ever filmed (“That is the greatest honour I have received, thank you! The nightbus is a purely London experience. I don’t know if you should be proud or disgusted with yourself”). Awkward outdoor smoking area conversations between strangers have rarely been captured better, while bad art, crap clubs, and wannabe-woke men are also in Akhavan’s cross hairs.
She describes The Bisexual as “a sexual coming-of-age story for someone in their 30s”. In the series, New Yorker Leila (Akhavan) decides she needs time out from her relationship with business partner and lover Sadie (Peake).
“I wanted someone who would be impossible to leave,” says Akhavan. “And that is what I feel when I look at Maxine – if you are lucky enough to have her, why would you ever leave?
“I started writing it in the last year of a long-term relationship. She was turning 40, I was turning 30 – I felt so connected with her, but that our lives were moving in different directions. Back then I had so much growing left to do, and she had so much rooting she wanted to do.”
Then comes the revelation: Leila, stalwart of the Hackney lesbian scene, begins exploring relationships with men. Bisexuality is, says Akhavan, a complex identity – and one that is difficult to fully embody at any one time. “Reductively, it is determined by whoever’s hand you are holding at whatever time. So if you are with someone of the same sex, you are gay, if you are with the opposite sex, then you are straight,” she says.
It is also rarely examined on screen. And even when it is, it is from the perspective of ostensibly straight protagonists taking their first steps into a same-sex relationship.
“I decided a reverse coming out would be a good vehicle to talk about the taboos,” says Akhavan. “As a dramatic device it would be so much more powerful if she had been telling this half-truth about herself and was outed as not fully gay. What would that look like?
“And, of course, it is uncomfortable. Being a lesbian is all about not having men around you. It is so nice being in spaces with women only. It is such a privilege. And when you have one foot out of that pool, you are different. You are just not one of them, through no one’s fault.
“I came out as bisexual and was always very straight up about that because I didn’t want to misrepresent. I always dreamt, ‘I wish I was a lesbian’, because that would be so much easier. I have so much comfort in that identity.”
Life in a post-Trump, Brexit world looks very different
As one of relatively few queer voices making a big noise in the film and television industry, does Akhavan feel the pressure as battles once thought won are having to be fought again?
“My work is a lot about identity and about ownership of your identity and culture,” she says. “Life in a post-Trump, Brexit world looks very different.
“It is important for me to exist right now. It is important for me that my voice is out there. And that I am advocating for what I believe in. And that I am not silenced through this. The world looks very different now. And for a lot of people it is about just surviving…”
The Bisexual starts on Channel 4 on October 10